Amazon wants to legalize pot, but it’s defending drug tests in court

The company said it would limit marijuana testing, but a New York lawsuit shows why it could be dealing with the issue for years to come.

Amazon wants to legalize pot, but it’s defending drug tests in court

For a giant logistics company, states' differing approaches to marijuana and safety can be tricky. | Image: Patrick Feller/Flickr

Romelo Rivera headed to an Amazon warehouse on New York City's Staten Island in March, thinking it was his first day back at work.

Two months earlier, according to a lawsuit he later joined, Rivera had wrapped up a seasonal stint at the facility, where his duties were described mostly as moving and inspecting packages. To return to the job permanently and start earning nearly $18 an hour, he hadn't even needed a formal interview — just a drug screening he'd completed before getting an email telling him when his possible start date would be.

Instead, soon after Rivera arrived, the company told him he'd tested positive for marijuana and wouldn't get the job, according to the complaint, filed earlier this year in federal court in New York.

Rivera is now one of three plaintiffs alleging that Amazon engaged in widespread violations of a New York City law that bans pre-employment marijuana testing (except when workers have certain safety responsibilities such as driving). Amazon announced earlier in June that it would support federal marijuana legalization and end a wide array of pre-employment marijuana testing outside of regulated transportation jobs. Yet it has continued defending the lawsuit, citing concerns about "immediate risk of death or serious physical harm" in the job from proximity to conveyor belts, heavy machinery and other workers.

"It is hard to reconcile the two," Doug Lipsky, Rivera's lawyer, told Protocol. "Amazon is arguing to the court that these positions are so potentially dangerous, the sorting facility is so perilous, that we can't run the risk of someone who tested positive for marijuana coming to work there."

To many, the case highlights a question that will only become more urgent for Amazon as additional states, or even the U.S. as a whole, move toward ending marijuana prohibition: How can a company with 1.3 million workers, flying and driving and seeking security clearances, handle divergent policies on marijuana?

'Really messy'

Indeed, experts say questions of labor and safety could remain unresolved years after any potential federal legalization. Despite Amazon's apparent relaxing stance on the issue, those questions could still require years of lobbying and tough calls by the company, and those decisions would come even as Amazon faces brutal labor turnover rates and workers, like those in New York, demand a consistent approach.

"When you have a day upon which [nationwide] legalization happens, there's so much to be figured out after that," said Paul Seaborn, a professor at the University of Virginia's business school who has studied lobbying and cannabis businesses. "The reality we're in right now is really messy for national companies."

Indeed, the details of marijuana policy can be head-spinning. Nearly 20 states (and the District of Columbia) allow adult recreational or medicinal use of cannabis, for instance, while a handful still prohibit any access. Thanks to varying definitions of "impairment," the legal status of someone driving a passenger car after the effects of consuming cannabis have worn off also differs among states. If someone is driving a truck full of Amazon packages, they are subject to federal testing requirements that haven't bent to any state legalization. Those dynamics could shift yet again if a potential U.S. law removed marijuana from the list of banned substances, but still, complications would likely persist in safety regulations slowly developed in the years after.

In other words: Even after its commitments to eliminate most drug testing as a condition of employment, Amazon is facing immense long-term complications for how it treats cannabis use by a workforce that moves and stores goods by air, sea, road and rail across the U.S.

Many of the workers who transport and deliver Amazon goods are either independent contractors or employees of a theoretically independent third party, but Amazon has an obvious interest in their safety records and employability, as well as its own liability. Meanwhile federal marijuana legalization continues to gain momentum but faces hurdles, particularly in the Senate and the White House.

Amazon didn't respond to questions asking how many potential employees it will be testing and whether it will continue testing beyond jobs regulated by the U.S. Transportation Department.

No one wants unsafe workers on the road, and the federal government mandates that companies simply limit their hiring of truck drivers to those who don't test positive for cannabis. However, some experts who study marijuana legalization say not only would that be unfair, but also it wouldn't particularly advance safety in a meaningful way.

One big reason is that, unlike with breathalyzer testing for alcohol, pre-employment testing or random testing for marijuana can pick up consumption from several days prior, when it is no longer impairing a worker. That's particularly true with the urinalysis that many regulators and safety officers favor. Even in a state where marijuana use is legal, requiring that workers test negative for all substances on a Monday could mean penalizing an employee who smoked a little on Friday while clearing for duty another employee who binge drank alcohol all day Sunday.

"With the urine test, you can't say anything" about impairment from marijuana, said Marta Concheiro-Guisan, an assistant professor in toxicology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "If I have to go to court and say something about that, I say, 'You cannot say anything.'"

Another reason cannabis policy for logistics workers can be tricky is that, like the larger impacts of policing marijuana, the result of testing on a workforce can fall disproportionately on people of color. Amazon's own diversity report says that Black and Latinx workers are overrepresented at the employment level that roughly coincides with the fulfillment centers where Amazon says it has a safety interest in worker consumption. They're also underrepresented in management and senior roles where potential cannabis use goes essentially unexamined.

"When you rely on enforcement mechanisms that don't capture everyone universally in the same way, the far likelihood is the people it captures are low-income and minority communities," Andrew Freedman, who served as Colorado's cannabis czar when it was first implementing legalization, told Protocol. (Freedman is currently the executive director of Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation.)

The one conspicuous exception for white-collar workers may be in certain divisions of Amazon Web Services, which currently provides cloud services to the CIA and is poised to expand to additional sensitive federal contracts in the future. Employees who require security clearances for those roles have a higher likelihood of facing consequences for cannabis use than their peers without clearances.

Finally, a blanket prohibition on cannabis users could really narrow the talent pool Amazon can draw from: More than one in seven people age 26 or over had used marijuana in the prior year, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which used data from 2019. More than a third of those ages 18 to 25 had consumed cannabis in that period, the survey showed, and rates in both age groups have been rising. That's a particular challenge for Amazon, which has a 150% annual turnover rate among hourly employees and constantly needs to be drawing new candidates.

"Especially in a tight labor market, it is absolutely absurd for the private sector or the public sector to deny employment opportunities to qualified individuals because of what they choose to do in their free time," said Justin Strekal, political director of NORML, which advocates for marijuana legalization.

Beyond legalization

The realities of imperfect testing and the need for safety when piloting a multi-ton metallic vehicle may mean that testing continues to exclude people who have consumed cannabis in recent days until we understand more about detecting impairment. Advocates, however, hope regulations will take nuances into account if marijuana is legalized on the federal level, as drivers and the companies that employ them will be in limbo until final rules are decided.

"When you're an international logistics company and one of the largest employers in the world, having inconsistent policies across state lines and across your corporation with something that a good percentage of your workforce does is untenable," said Freedman.

If the experience of states that have ended marijuana prohibitions is any guide, the rule-making that follows legalization takes years and is rarely over after a first round. In addition to regulating truck drivers' potential impairment, for instance, federal laws and regulations govern labeling, advertising, purity, agriculture, manufacture, banking, taxation and more.

Whatever Amazon decides, though, there's little doubt it's on a long regulatory road.

Legalization "starts a very complex, years-long process of building initial regulations, finalizing those regulations and then along the way, putting new regulations into place requiring new legislation," said John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, who has written extensively on marijuana policy.

"At the federal level, that process is just on steroids," he added.

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not fully name the Center for Effective Public Management. This story was updated on June 24, 2021.

LA is a growing tech hub. But not everyone may fit.

LA has a housing crisis similar to Silicon Valley’s. And single-family-zoning laws are mostly to blame.

As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers, whose high salaries put them at an advantage in both LA's renting and buying markets.

Photo: Nat Rubio-Licht/Protocol

LA’s tech scene is on the rise. The number of unicorn companies in Los Angeles is growing, and the city has become the third-largest startup ecosystem nationally behind the Bay Area and New York with more than 4,000 VC-backed startups in industries ranging from aerospace to creators. As the number of tech companies in the region grows, so does the number of tech workers. The city is quickly becoming more and more like Silicon Valley — a new startup and a dozen tech workers on every corner and companies like Google, Netflix, and Twitter setting up offices there.

But with growth comes growing pains. Los Angeles, especially the burgeoning Silicon Beach area — which includes Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey — shares something in common with its namesake Silicon Valley: a severe lack of housing.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

While there remains debate among economists about whether we are officially in a full-blown recession, the signs are certainly there. Like most executives right now, the outlook concerns me.

In any case, businesses aren’t waiting for the official pronouncement. They’re already bracing for impact as U.S. inflation and interest rates soar. Inflation peaked at 9.1% in June 2022 — the highest increase since November 1981 — and the Federal Reserve is targeting an interest rate of 3% by the end of this year.

Keep Reading Show less
Nancy Sansom

Nancy Sansom is the Chief Marketing Officer for Versapay, the leader in Collaborative AR. In this role, she leads marketing, demand generation, product marketing, partner marketing, events, brand, content marketing and communications. She has more than 20 years of experience running successful product and marketing organizations in high-growth software companies focused on HCM and financial technology. Prior to joining Versapay, Nancy served on the senior leadership teams at PlanSource, Benefitfocus and PeopleMatter.


SFPD can now surveil a private camera network funded by Ripple chair

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a policy that the ACLU and EFF argue will further criminalize marginalized groups.

SFPD will be able to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks in certain circumstances.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ripple chairman and co-founder Chris Larsen has been funding a network of security cameras throughout San Francisco for a decade. Now, the city has given its police department the green light to monitor the feeds from those cameras — and any other private surveillance devices in the city — in real time, whether or not a crime has been committed.

This week, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a controversial plan to allow SFPD to temporarily tap into private surveillance networks during life-threatening emergencies, large events, and in the course of criminal investigations, including investigations of misdemeanors. The decision came despite fervent opposition from groups, including the ACLU of Northern California and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which say the police department’s new authority will be misused against protesters and marginalized groups in a city that has been a bastion for both.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.


These two AWS vets think they can finally solve enterprise blockchain

Vendia, founded by Tim Wagner and Shruthi Rao, wants to help companies build real-time, decentralized data applications. Its product allows enterprises to more easily share code and data across clouds, regions, companies, accounts, and technology stacks.

“We have this thesis here: Cloud was always the missing ingredient in blockchain, and Vendia added it in,” Wagner (right) told Protocol of his and Shruthi Rao's company.

Photo: Vendia

The promise of an enterprise blockchain was not lost on CIOs — the idea that a database or an API could keep corporate data consistent with their business partners, be it their upstream supply chains, downstream logistics, or financial partners.

But while it was one of the most anticipated and hyped technologies in recent memory, blockchain also has been one of the most failed technologies in terms of enterprise pilots and implementations, according to Vendia CEO Tim Wagner.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.


Kraken's CEO got tired of being in finance

Jesse Powell tells Protocol the bureaucratic obligations of running a financial services business contributed to his decision to step back from his role as CEO of one of the world’s largest crypto exchanges.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kraken is going through a major leadership change after what has been a tough year for the crypto powerhouse, and for departing CEO Jesse Powell.

The crypto market is still struggling to recover from a major crash, although Kraken appears to have navigated the crisis better than other rivals. Despite his exchange’s apparent success, Powell found himself in the hot seat over allegations published in The New York Times that he made insensitive comments on gender and race that sparked heated conversations within the company.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Latest Stories